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You Have the Power to Handle Outage

March 19, 2000|GARY ABRAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you are like most of us, you have probably experienced an electrical power failure in your home. Most of the time, it is caused by a storm, earthquake, power company equipment failure or circuit overload.

There is not much any of us can personally do about the first three, but it is very important for both safety and convenience to know how to prevent overloading electrical power circuits and how to restore restore when you do.

Preventing circuit overloads is largely a matter of balancing appliance use, especially appliances that produce heat.

Do not, for example, use a toaster at the same time a coffee maker is in operation on the same circuit. Do not use a hair dryer while a space heater is turned on.

Circuits Shut Down

When Overtaxed

All household circuits are designed to handle a certain safe electrical load and, for fire safety reasons, will shut down automatically when they are overtaxed.

Devices designed to produce heat draw much more current than other electric items, so using them simultaneously in the same area should be avoided whenever possible.

If you note that certain circuits in your home are prone to tripping regularly, even without overdoing appliance use, contact an electrician about adding additional capacity.

If you have overloaded a circuit, causing the power to go off, here is how to proceed before calling for help:

* Locate your electrical panel.

It is usually on the outside of the structure at the side or rear. If you have utility poles in your area, look for a power panel box below the area where power lines connect to the building.

A condominium or apartment may have a separate box inside the home, usually behind a door or in a closet.

* Once you find the power box, determine which circuit has blown.

When you open the panel cover, you may notice one of the toggles is slightly out of line with the others. To reset it, move it to the full off position before moving it to on.

Most breakers will not reset unless the toggle is moved fully to off first. If it is not clear which one is tripped, you may have to reset all of them.

* In older homes, look for fuses.

If your home is more than 50 years old, you may still have fuses (i.e., glass "knobs" that unscrew like lightbulbs) instead of circuit breakers.

If so, look for a dark or burnt spot in the center of any of the fuses. Unscrew and replace it with a new fuse of the same amperage (always stamped on the bottom of the fuse).

Blown fuses sometimes look perfectly good, so you may have to replace them one by one with a good spare, each time checking to see if the power comes back on.

If you find that the breaker or fuse blows immediately after replacement, you could have a defective appliance or fixture causing a short-circuit.

To check for this, unplug everything in the area where the power is out, and then reset the breaker or fuse. If it resets successfully, you can usually conclude that the house wiring is OK and that one of the plugged-in items is defective.

By plugging each item in one at a time and noting at which point the power shuts down again, you will determine which item is at fault.

To help prevent circuit breakers from sticking because of corrosion or dust, flip each breaker off and back on at least once a year.

Gary Abrams is a general contractor who has written about home improvement for The Times for 10 years. Comments and questions can be sent to P.O. Box 711, Thousand Oaks, CA 91319. Please include a self-addressed stamped envelope.

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